Twelve favorite Carols

You can’t avoid hearing the sounds of the season on the radio, in shopping malls, in commercials on television. Christmas carols are omnipresent this time of year.

It’s hard to imagine the season without “White Christmas” or the “Little Drummer Boy”. Yet, 60-some years ago, neither of those songs was part of the December lineup. What follows is a history of 12 carols that are heard frequently during the Christmas season.

“God Rest Ye Merry, Gentleman” > Words and music, unknown > The key to “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentleman” is the placement of the comma after “merry.” The song addresses anyone who might be an anxious, not merry, gentleman. The song, which has unknown origins in the 15th century, has a modern translation of “God make you mighty, gentleman.” The contemporary version of the carol was first published in William Sandy’s 1833 “Christmas Carols, Ancient & Modern.”

“Good King Wenceslas” > Words, John Mason Neale; music, traditional Finnish carol > Wenceslas wasn’t a king, but a Bohemian duke born near Prague who succeeded his father, Duke Borivoy of Bohemia, in 925 at the age of 18. Known for doing good works for his subjects, Wenceslas, his Bohemian name was Vaclav, worked the fields with peasants to harvest grapes and corn to make wine and bread for Mass. It’s also speculated that he delivered goods to the poor on Christmas Eve. In 929, he was murdered by supporters of his pagan brother, Boleslav, who later regretted his deed and converted to Christianity. John Mason Neale set his lyrics to a Finnish song that first appeared as a Boxing Day carol in “Carols for Christmastide” in 1853. Interestingly, the lyrics make no mention of the Nativity.

“Hark!, The Herald Angels Sing” > Words, Charles Wesley; music, William Cummings > Charles Wesley, an English clergyman, wrote the original lyrics in 1737, which began “Hark! How all the welkin rings, glory to the king of kings.” Welkin, an Old English word that meant “the vault of heaven makes a long noise,” was changed to “herald angels” by George Whitefield, a bartender-turned-Calvinist preacher. Wesley was incensed, but Whitefield’s lyrics were the ones set to music in 1852 by William Cummings. Cummings, who sang in a choir led by Felix Mendelsson, borrowed a melody from Mendelsson’s “Festgesang an die Knustler,” a song that was written in 1840 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Gutenberg’s printing press.

“Here We Come A-Wassailing” > Words and music, unknown > The word “wassail” is derived from the Old English words waes, to be well, and hael, meaning hail or hello. Wassail is a spiced ale drink that was carried door-to-door by young women singing verses for the purpose of earning gratuities. The song’s date of origin is unknown, but scholars believe that wassailing was popular during William Shakespeare’s lifetime in the 16th and early 17th century.

“I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” > Words, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow; music, John Baptiste Calkin > Perhaps the only Christmas song born from melancholy. Longfellow, who lost two wives due to tragic circumstances, is thought to have penned the words for “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” on Dec. 25, 1863, in reaction to his wounded son, Charles, returning home from the Civil War. An Englishman, John Baptiste Calkin, put music to the poem, originally known as “Christmas Bells,” in 1872, omitting two verses specifically about the war.

“I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In” > Words and music, unknown > One of the more curious Christmas songs, in that the lyrics set up the impossible: three ships sailing into landlocked Bethlehem. The basis of the story is about the relics of the Three Kings, whose bodies supposedly were brought to Byzantium, later Constantinople, 250 years after their deaths in the first century. The relics then were moved to Cologne, Germany, during the 12th century, and the original lyrics spoke of the three ships that transported the remains. Earliest versions of the song probably originated in Germany, which has a strong tradition of ship carols. But the version that remains a Christmas standard became popular in the British Isles, probably in the 15th century.

“Little Drummer Boy” > Words and music, Katharine K. Davis; revised by Harry Simeone > Katharine Davis, a composer and teacher who taught in Massachusetts, wrote “The Carol of the Drums” in 1941 as a retelling of the legends found in many European countries about young, poor and disaffected members of society offering gifts to the Baby Jesus. The Trapp Family Singers recorded a popular version of the song, but in 1958, Harry Simeone, formerly the choral conductor for Fred Waring & the Pennsylvanians, recast the song as “Little Drummer Boy.” It has proven popular with contemporary musicians, as Joan Baez, Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, Johnny Mathis and Lou Rawls have recorded the song. The most unique version might be Bing Crosby’s duet with David Bowie in 1977 on the former’s Christmas special.

“Joy to the World” > Words, Isaac Watts, music, Lowell Mason > When Isaac Watts wrote the verse for “Joy to the World” in early 1719, many English Christians were offended that he would dare base a work on a psalm. But Watts’ retelling of Psalm 98 became popular when Lowell Mason, an American music scholar and hymn writer, set the words to a piece he composed called “Antioch.” Music historians are divided about whether Mason borrowed the melody from Handel’s “Messiah.” A popular version of the song, sung by Elise Stevenson of “Shine On, Harvest Moon” fame, reached No. 5 in 1911. Three Dog Night supposedly was inspired by the carol when it wrote the hit single of the same name. Another carol that doesn’t mention the Nativity, it originally was considered a hymn for all seasons.

“O Come, All Ye Faithful (Adeste Fideles)” > Words, John Francis Wade; translated from Latin by Frederick Oakley; music, uncertain > John Francis Wade, an 18th-century Englishman who emigrated to Douay, an English community in France, is credited with the original Latin version. Some have speculated he borrowed the music from a comic opera by Frenchman Charles Simon Favart. Frederick Oakley, an Anglican minister who converted to Catholicism, is credited with the English translation sometime in the 1840s. In the first quarter of the 20th century, three recordings of the song — by the Peerless Quartet in 1905, John McCormack in 1915 and the American Glee Club in 1925, were popular hits.

“O Little Town of Bethlehem” > Words, Phillip Brooks; music, Lewis Redner > After a visit in 1865 to the Church of the Nativity in Jerusalem, Phillip Brooks, the Episcopalian pastor of the Church of the Holy Trinity in Philadelphia, wrote the lyrics for “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” Lewis Redner, the organist at the church and a real estate broker by day, set Brooks’ words to music. In Great Britain, a different melody was composed for Brooks’ words by Henry Walford Davies.

“Silent Night”, or “Stille Nacht!” > Words, Joseph Mohr; music Franz Gruber > The legend behind “Stille Nacht!,” involves a mouse and a some quick work on guitar. Joseph Mohr, the assistant pastor of St. Nicholas Church in Obendorf, Austria, knew the organ at the church was broken, presumably because a mouse had eaten through the instrument’s wires. Right before Christmas Eve 1818, Mohr penned the lyrics and took them to the church organist, Franz Gruber, who wrote the music. The song was performed on guitar on Christmas Eve at the church, and later popularized by Joseph Strasser, an Austrian glovemaker who had a family singing group specializing in Tyrolean folk carols. In the United States, “Silent Night” became popular after Bing Crosby sang it in “The Bells of St. Mary’s.”

“White Christmas” > Words and music, Irving Berlin > One of the most popular of all Christmas carols was written in Los Angeles by a Jew. “White Christmas,” Irving Berlin’s gem of seasonal longing required the songwriter to imagine the nostalgia for Christmas felt by his Christian brethren. So unsure was Berlin about his effort that he almost tore it up before giving it to Bing Crosby, who sang it on his radio show on Dec. 25, 1941. Used in the film “Holiday Inn,” the carol was awarded an Academy Award in 1942 for best song. After it was released in late summer of 1942, it spent 12 weeks at No. 1, much of its popularity due to American soldiers overseas who requested it on Armed Forces Radio.

Sources: “The Penguin Book of Carols,” (Penguin), Ian Bradley, editor; “The Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas,” (Zondervan), Ace Collins;

“Christmas Songs Made in America: Favorite Holiday Melodies & the Stories of Their Origins” (Cumberland House), Albert J. Menendez and Shirley C. Menendez.